Getting started – school leaders

Children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing should be a core thread running through all school activities, and should clearly link with whole-school priorities. School leaders need to be the driving force behind this.

Every school inspectorate across the UK looks at how schools are supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing as part of their remit.

You can find out more about what each inspectorate will look for, and how to prepare for this, on the pages for EnglandNorthern IrelandScotland and Wales.

10 tips for school leaders

There are a number of ways that school leaders can approach supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. But here are our top 10 tips for making mental health a whole-school priority.

1. Provide clear leadership, vision, strategy and plans for improvement

School leaders should develop a clear vision for how to embed good  mental health and wellbeing throughout their school community. Leaders should work with the senior leadership team (SLT) and any mental health leads, as well as governors, parent councils or trustees, to do this.

By auditing what is already in place, the SLT can identify priority areas for improvement and convert this into a strategic plan to help drive whole-school change. An essential part of this audit will be speaking with pupils, parents and carers to highlight areas for improvement. 

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2. Develop a school policy for mental health and wellbeing

It is helpful to develop a mental health and wellbeing policy and review it regularly so that it responds to evolving needs and changes within your school. The policy should be concise, well promoted and accessible, and provide guidance on supporting staff mental health and wellbeing.

Wider school policies should also be reviewed to make sure they support the wellbeing of staff and pupils – these include policies relating to bullying, discrimination, behaviour management and school exclusion.

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3. Create a safe and supportive environment

Children and young people should feel that they belong at school; that they are supported and can develop trusting relationships with school staff. School leaders have a vital role to play in creating this ethos across the school and should model best practice, for example by using positive, inclusive and respectful language, celebrating pupils’ successes, and engaging with parents and carers.

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4. Create a culture where mental health can be talked about openly

School leaders can encourage a culture in which mental health and wellbeing is talked about openly and where pupils, parents, carers and staff understand the importance of, and links between, good mental and physical health.

It’s important to help staff understand that every child and young person is different and may cope with challenging situations differently. Pupils and staff should know who to talk to if they need support - clear signposting within the school is a good way to promote a sense of openness about seeking support or advice.

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5. Provide high quality health and wellbeing education lessons

Health and wellbeing education lessons (RSHE in England, Personal Development and Mutual Understanding/Learning for Life and Work in Northern Ireland, and Health and Wellbeing in Scotland and Wales) are a very important way of educating children and young people about their mental health and how to look after it. These lessons should be prioritised and delivered as part of the school curriculum.

Where possible, schools should also have a strategy for how to develop children and young people’s social and emotional skills throughout the rest of the curriculum.

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6. Develop strategies to support at-risk children and young people

Some children and young people are more likely than others to develop mental health problems. This can be because they have faced multiple challenging situations over time. School leaders need to make sure that staff can recognise children and young people who are more at risk, and that staff have strategies in place to support those children.

The school leadership team will also need to work in partnership with local commissioners to make sure there is a clear roadmap of local support services.

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7. Guide staff on referring a student

There should be clear guidance on how staff can best support students who may have mental health problems. Whilst staff are not expected to be mental health experts, they should be aware of how to identify the signs that a student may be struggling, the types of mental health issues that a child or young person may have, and what school staff can do to support these children.

Leaders can direct staff to the mental health needs section of Mentally Healthy Schools which can help staff make sense of any changes they are seeing in a child or young person’s behaviour, and guide them on what support the student may need. Staff can use this section as part of their continuing professional development (CPD). Staff will also need to know when and how to refer children and young people for specialist support within or outside of school.

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8. Work with families and communities

Families are often the key to helping support a child or young person who is struggling. School leaders should encourage staff to work with pupils, parents or carers; raise awareness about mental health and wellbeing, alongside attempting to destigmatise it, where necessary.

When working with families, senior leaders and school staff should emphasise that we all have mental health, that it is something we can strengthen and look after through learning positive strategies to help us cope with difficulties. But that it is also something that we might sometimes need help with – and early support can help people recover more quickly.

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9. Protect children and young people from harm and neglect

All children and young people should feel safe at school, be able to learn and know that they can speak out if anything is worrying them. School leaders can make a difference by creating an inclusive and welcoming environment that supports children and young people when they’re experiencing challenges both inside and outside the school setting.

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10. Support staff mental health and wellbeing

Teaching is a challenging job. School staff juggle a multitude of different tasks and demands, it is important that all staff are given the right emotional and practical support so that they can, in turn, support their pupils. Positive staff wellbeing can increase productivity and engagement, and also improve job satisfaction. Research shows that this will also help to reduce absence from work - both short and long term.

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